Back to Black

That’s summer. Right there.

Way before the advent of trail centres and their associated gradings, the colour of the Black Mountains was all about the vast quantity of coal extracted, rather than a nod to perceived difficulty. I’m ambivalent over creating a riding class system based on colour, but since we’re stuck with it then this 50k loop in the heart of the South Wales valleys can be thought of as ‘none more black‘.

Not because it’s technically edgy – other than there are a few technical sections most of which seem to be only vaguely glued to the edge of the mountain – or it’s festooned with man made ideas of what an obstacle might look like; no it’s a splendid collage of tough climbs, long descents, pushes and carries, windswept summits, people-less views and endless rain which greeted us when we hit the border, made us welcome all day long and waved us goodbye with a mighty thunderstorm.

Proper mountain biking then. For proper mountain bikers. That’s us in case you were wondering, and we’ve been here before with my vaguely pretentious attempt to define the joy of natural riding and a rather more scary episode where Hyperthermia was hidden under deep snow cover. How would such a proper mountain biker be defined? That’s a whole post all on its own, but it’s hard to see any agreement for the inclusion of ‘inability to map read‘ and ‘inability to use a GPS with special consideration for misunderstanding grid references‘. I’ve never thought of myself as that type of proper mountain biker.

Still I should receive a little credit for nudging a few like minded souls into a damp car park at quite early o’ clock. The forecast suggested intermittent light showers with heavy drizzle later. Or – as anyone who has ever read such a forecast will wearily explain – pissing rain from dawn to dusk. Lots of different types; light, heavy, sideways – the kind of rain that’s on a mission to seep into every bodily crevice before partying on with all its friends. By rides’ end, my feet were a watersports park for lemmings*, everything marketed as waterproof had been outed as the emperors damp clothes, and we’d all been in unhappy receipt of grit based facial scrubs that still has me chewing sharp sand even now.

The bikes didn’t look too pretty either. There’s a noise a chainset makes when stripped of every last molecule of lube. And that noise is ‘expensive‘. Somehow none of this mattered, nor did my inability to find the excellent 500 yards of singletrack I’d insisted we start on, so adding about 9k of road trudgery to the route. Eventually the kind and supportive group stopped laughing long enough to point us up a big sodding hill that went on for a very long time. Eventually – and already thoroughly soaked – we passed the point where the less navigationally challenged would normally park; some 1 kilometre from the proper off road.

I think they were fine about it. We weren’t talking much anyway 😉 Familiarity with the route saw us set off up the first hill at speeds unlikely to trouble a sprightly tortoise. It’s a lovely climb this, alternately grassy and rocky with little challenges in and out of stream crossings on the first half and then a pull on a good but steepening track leading deep into the mountains. Amazing views here I remembered while adding another layer and shivering slightly. Up here the temperature dropped into single figures with a strengthening wind whipping away the warmth of the climb, but refusing to split the stubborn cloud cover.

Four times I’ve parked a bike at the top of this climb and taken a picture of it. Four different bikes obviously. Not today tho – regrouped we head to the summit and after a never-to-be-repeated navigational triumph headed straight to the Rhiw Trumau descent. Classic in every sense – clinging to the side of the valley, traversing gently downwards at first in wheel swallowing ruts before plunging down the spine in a deep gulley stuffed with loose rocks. The crux of which is a committed step that really has only one line and a fast one at that with speed needed to clear the rock field on the exit. Never properly cleaned that before. Have now 🙂

The rocks were properly wet, glistening even under a stone-grey sky, yet the grip was phenomenal. I’d like to put down solely to my awesome bike handling skills, but really it was the combination of 23psi in the tyres and a fantastically sorted bike crouched atop them, with my contribution merely picking a spot on the dirty horizon and bellowing out a Clarkson-esque ‘Pooowwwweeeeerrrr‘. I’ll be 46 next week and see no reason why acting as if I were in fact 11 is in any way a problem. Riding mountain bikes feeds the inner child in us all. Some, admittedly, more than others.

Three full-suspension bikes made it down at a decent pace followed by Hardtail Haydn who had the look of a man recently pardoned from a capital sentence. Vague memories of riding that descent in the dry on my Ti Hardtail engendered a very brief spike of sympathy before blasting off again on more rocks carelessly interspersed with slick mud. Which may explain why Matt decided to attack an innocent tree with his head although he maintains he was ‘fully in control‘ at the time. As we removed a good sized stump that had breached his helmet’s defence, I couldn’t help thinking ‘head wound, probably delusional‘.

After a little bleed, we started to get properly lost after deciding one GPS and three maps was an inferior route finding approach to vague memories of fire roads that all looked the same. Fortified by soggy sandwiches we somehow co-located ourselves with the official route beeped out by my Garmin, only to go off piste about five minutes later having ridden through water deep enough for it to be considered tidal. I was still loving my bike at this point feeling it was a perfect compromise between climbing and descending. Although if I’d had a choice of most appropriate vehicle for the day, I’d have plumped for a Navy Frigate.

Admitting we were lost – that’ll be the big mountain-y thing we can no longer see then – upgraded our navigational stupidity to a ‘short cut‘ comprising mainly of a 15 minute calf-screaming push into a bastard rainy headwind. Y Das is always a push as you snake round the summit. It’s steep and nasty but I’ll never bitch about it again having now made what must be the first bike-ascent of Y-DAS direct. Except we didn’t quite make the summit being pushed around the side where my GPS and map reading came to the fore again. Visibility was now about zero and the wind screamed wet expletives at our ineptitude, but good humour was mostly maintained as we tracked on a increasingly defined path in the direction of safety.

Found the summit. Went the wrong way again. Mainly because by this time I couldn’t see the GPS for mud and I’d assumed the ‘off course‘ whining beep was it committing computer suicide** Eventually we realised our mistake and splashed down the always brilliant descent past Grwyne Fawr dam. Oh it was properly wet today and rockier than I remembered. This muse accompanied me on atop my lovely full suspension bike while wondering if Haydn was enjoying himself as much. He was apparently, but it was clearly hard work and by days end, he was mostly ruined.

Fast splashy blast to second sandwich stop under dank trees, munching away happily while Matt replaced a set of ‘backing plate‘ brake pads. One last climb through Myndd Du Forest and then home for tea and medals. Matt’s route up there appeared to involve pushing up impossibly steep drainage channels. I knew another way but felt any navigational suggestions would not be taken very seriously, so I sucked up some mountain air and got on with it. Rode the last climb on tiring legs only to find a view of sun lit lowlands mostly hidden by cloud clamped on this hill.

We had our only fall on the way down with Martin failing to make a steep, slick corner on the final brilliant descent that was a rut hopping rush at the top and a fall-line plunge from half way down. Having survived that I nearly lunched myself on the final set of steps, narrowly missing a trail marker by depositing myself in a damp bush. Which isn’t anywhere near as exciting as it may sound.

Rode home on the road home up a couple of unexpected climbs, which had me pointing out since I’d abandoned any navigation many hours ago this could in no way be deemed my fault. Surprisingly such a well considered argument may not have won the day. Beer did tho, consumed in a lovely pub apparently unconcerned by damp mountain bikers clothed in anything not suffering local flooding.

Cold and wet don’t make me happy. Not at all. It always feels like a test I don’t want to take. But mostly warm and wet – well that’s a damn fine way to spend a day compared to – say – not being in the mountains with your friends. Evidently riding bikes is what I like to do, but what I REALLY love is adventuring by bicycle. More of that please.

* beginners mistake. Stuck the waterproof socks on which were BRILLIANT for almost minutes before becoming a perfect sock-pool for cooling water. A feeling of chilly moistness than lasted only about five hours. On removing the sock, a number of fish made a break for it.

** which it did when I got home. Bag of rice and all was well. Although only because I explained if it didn’t start working, I was serving it up Garmin A l’Orange.

7 thoughts on “Back to Black

  1. There’s piccies of me on that little bridge from various points in my mountain biking career, that start with no sus travel, and end (at the minute) with 140mm…made no difference to the fun though…

  2. Alex

    Yeah I sometimes forget it’s not just me that can’t read a map 😉 I remember being very lost in that forest. It was like Deliverance 😉

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